Where the position stands now:
Coming into the 2013-2014 season the Panthers running back situation looked dire, at best. But suddenly it looks like a potential strength.
It begins with sophomore James Conner, a 6'2" 230 combination of elusiveness and bulldozering. Conner came out of nowhere as a true freshman to run for 799 yards, 8 TDs, and a 5.5 average. He should only get better and he has star potential. Paul Chryst has recently stated that Conner will play some defensive end in the upcoming season. Personally, I think that's a mistake but they didn't ask me for my opinion. Conner already takes a beating at running back, and he's too important to the offense. It also means that more has to be expected of his backups.
One of those backups is senior Isaac Bennett, who ran for 797 yards, 7 TDs, and a 4.7 average. His numbers may be close to Conner's numbers, but his talent is not. In fact, if incoming freshman Chris James lives up to his potential he may be the main back to give Conner a breather. At 5'9" and 210 pounds, James is a stocky gamebreaker. He would be a much better change of pace than Bennett, not to mention that he has the home run potential that Bennett, or Conner, does not.
Sophomore Rachid Ibrahim impressed with his quickness in his freshman season but if James takes over as the third down threat, Ibrahim may find himself without carries. On the bright side, if he does get phased out, he can move to the defensive backfield where his nice length and quickness could make him a nice safety.
The depth continues to get much better thanks to two more freshman. One, 6'1" 226 pound Qadree Ollison obviously has the size to make a difference. He also has pretty good speed. He may redshirt if things go well. The other freshman will redshirt, and that's 5'11" 190 pound Dennis Briggs.
With Conner, James, and even Ollison already in the fold the chances of adding another top back is probably not very good. That doesn't mean the Panthers won't try, though. You can't ever have enough, especially when James and Ollison are not proven yet. Luckily for them, there are three excellent prospects right in the state.
The best of the bunch is 5'9" 205 pound Andre Robinson of Bishop McDevitt HS in Harrisburg. He's very similar to James, which is another reason why he may not want to go to Pitt. Look for Penn State to make him a priority. The other two in-state backs are from the eastern part of the state. One, 5'11" 195 pound Saquon Barkley of Whitemarsh HS has already committed to Rutgers. But the talented Barkley has taken note of the recent recruiting problems at Rutgers, and has been a little more open. One of the schools he's now looking at more closely is Pitt. Lastly is 6'2" 185 pound Josh Adams of Central Bucks South HS in Warrington. Adams is a dynamic athlete but he may also be outgrowing the position. Tall running backs are generally a bad idea because they're just too big of a target. That's why many expect that he'll end up at wide receiver. He also tore his ACL late last season so right now more schools are taking a little bit of a wait and see approach. Put all of those things together and I don't really think Pitt will even recruit him hard. In summary, when looking at all of the info available, I don't see any of these three ending up at Pitt.
Outside of PA, elite prospects that Pitt is recruiting include 6'1" 220 pound Larry Scott of Hubbard (OH) HS, 5'10" 175 pound Taj Griffin of McEachern HS (Powder Springs, GA), and 5'8" 180 pound Tim Irvin of Westminster Christian HS (Palmetto Bay, FL). All are big time running backs and Pitt isn't expected to be a major player with any of them.
But even though the Panthers likely won't land these backs, it's interesting to note the size of some of them. While it's assumed that Chryst prefers big backs that move the pile, for the 2015 class at least he's looking for some smaller, faster, quicker backs that can be a change of pace game breakers who can also be utilized in the passing game as well as special teams.
Two in-state backs that match that criteria are 5'9" 180 pound Olamide Zacceaus of St. Joseph's Prep (Philadelphia), and 5'9" 180 pound Nasir Bonner of Imhotep Institute (Philadelphia). Zacceaus already holds a Pitt offer, as well as offers from Miami and Temple. The Panthers have yet to make in person contact with him. Bonner has offers from programs like West Virginia, Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Arizona State so it's a little surprising that Pitt hasn't offered yet, but they likely will.
An out of state back that the Panthers are interested in is 5'11" 220 pound Sekai Lindsay of Palm Bay HS (Melbourne, FL). The Panthers have yet to offer the fast bowling ball but he could make a nice addition to the unit.
Bottom line: As long as Conner and James look good next season it will be difficult for the Panthers to land a topnotch running back. Yes, elite running backs go to elite programs every year but Pitt isn't that at this time. Kids come to Pitt to play and if Pitt has a star sophomore running back with a freshman behind him that's also looking like a star, then the better backs will probably go elsewhere. If the Pitt backs do not look good next season then players like Robinson and maybe even Barkely could come into play.
Otherwise, as of now the most realistic possibilities are Zacceaus or Lindsay. But the Panthers have merely offered Zacceaus without really recruiting him hard yet, so if they don't do that soon then they probably aren't interested that much. Lindsay is more of the same kind of back that they have but right now his only offer is Cincinnati. If he gets no elite offers, and Pitt does offer and pursues him, then he may end up at Pitt, but that's a long way away.
To summarize, Pitt probably won't be desperate to land a top running back this season. A quick all-purpose back may be a nice addition, but otherwise they may find that convincing a top back to join a unit that already has top young backs to be a tough proposition. One more important thing to note is that Pitt is probably the favorite for elite 2016 running back Miles Sanders from Woodland Hills (Pittsburgh). With Conner, James, and Ollison, and the possibility of adding Sanders in the future, any added running back in this recruiting class would just be a nice bonus.